Is missing disinflation a uniquely American phenomenon?

By Paul Hubert, Mathilde Le Moigne

Are the dynamics of inflation after the 2007-2009 crisis atypical? According to Paul Krugman, “If inflation had responded to the Great Recession and aftermath the way it did in previous big slumps, we would be deep in deflation by now; we aren’t.” In fact, after 2009, inflation in the US has remained surprisingly stable in terms of changes in real activity. This phenomenon has been called “missing disinflation”. Can a phenomenon like this be seen in the euro zone?

Despite the worst recession since the 1929 crisis, the inflation rate has remained stable at around 1.5% on average between 2008 and 2011 in the US and 1% in the euro zone. Does this mean that the Phillips curve, which links inflation to real activity, has lost its empirical validity? In a note in 2016, Olivier Blanchard argued instead that the Phillips curve, in its simplest original version, is still a valid instrument for understanding the relationship between inflation and unemployment, in spite of this “missing disinflation”.

Blanchard nevertheless noted that the relationship between the two variables has weakened, because inflation increasingly depends on inflation expectations, which are themselves anchored to the inflation target of the US Fed. In an article in 2015, Coibion and Gorodnichenko explained this missing disinflation in the US by the fact that inflation expectations are influenced by variations in the most visible prices, such as fluctuations in the price of oil. Furthermore, since 2015 inflation expectations have declined concomitantly with oil prices.

The difficulty of accounting for recent trends in inflation through the Phillips curve led us to evaluate its potential determinants in a recent working paper and to consider whether this “missing disinflation” phenomenon was also present in the euro zone. Based on a standard Phillips curve, we did not come up with the results of Coibion and Gorodnichenko when the euro zone was considered in its entirety. In other words, real activity and inflation expectations do describe changes in inflation.

However, this result appears to come from an aggregation bias between the behaviours of national inflation within the euro zone. In particular, we found a significant divergence between the countries of Northern Europe (Germany, France), which demonstrate a general tendency towards missing inflation, and countries on the periphery (Spain, Italy, Greece), which exhibit periods of missing disinflation. This divergence nevertheless appears right from the start of our sample, that is to say, in the early years of the creation of the euro zone, and seems to reverse around 2006, without any significant change during the crisis of 2008-2009.

Unlike what happened in the US, it appears that the euro zone has not experienced missing disinflation as a result of the economic and financial crisis of 2008-2009. It seems instead that divergences in inflation in Europe preceded the crisis, and tended to subside with the crisis.